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Chris Gammell's Analog Life

6 Posts tagged with the learning tag
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KiCAD Schematic Tutorial

Posted by Chris_Gammell Oct 20, 2011

Oh hey, remember me? Yeah, I'm the guy that's supposed to be running this site. Sorry for the long absence. I've been consulting, recording my electronics radio show, managing  a multi-blogger engineer site and even getting married! Jeez, it's been a busy time. Anyway, things have cooled off a bit, so I've freed up some time (for now, never know what'll happen).

I decided to dive into a new project after a long hiatus from hobby type activity. I plan to put an MP3 player and output stage board into an antique radio enclosure. I also decided to document the process, specifically using the open source board layout program, KiCAD. I've been talking about learning the software and doing the videos for a while now, so here it is! The first installment is the schematic capture. I'll add more as the board gets more complex and I need to dive more into the process of actually getting a board fabbed. I'm excited! Hope you enjoy the video and the ones to come!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2011/10/21/kicad-schematic-tutorial/
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The 555 Contest

Posted by Chris_Gammell Jan 30, 2011

I’m guessing if you follow me at all on Twitter or Facebook or just about anywhere else on the internet (I’m not too hard to find), you might know about the 555 contest. I have been talking about it quite a bit on various channels, all except here.

So I thought I’d discuss some of the aspects I might not discuss on other forums because they wouldn’t be relevant. But since this site is basically about me and my interests…well I get to write whatever I want! Sweet!

First off, I thought I should mention Jeri. Honestly, I didn’t know her well when we got started working on the contest. Mostly just talking on Twitter and watching her videos. It’s been nice getting a chance to chat though. She’s just as bright as her videos let on. And it’s always interesting meeting new engineers with similar past experiences. Many of the same struggles I’ve gone through in the past, she has as well. Since she has more experience than me, I’ve been learning stuff from her. When I’m not learning from her, we usually make fun of Dave together! (kidding Dave!)

Next, I thought I should mention the spontaneity of the articles about us and the contest. Have a look at some of them:

So here’s the dirty little secret: we know most of the people that wrote about us. Yup, it’s true. But the interesting part for me is thinking just how often this kind of things happens. A friend/acquaintance calls up and tells you about an upcoming design contest, you might want to write about it, right? Welcome to the world of PR! I’m super happy all these wonderful people decided to write about us, and I don’t think they would have unless we had something fun and intriguing; but still, I thought it was interesting and wonder if the contest could be even bigger if bigger names were setting up the contest in the first place.

And finally, I should point out that as much as I enjoy working on the contest, it’s a ton of work! I’m not trying to complain but it makes me appreciate those that run other similar events (and in the past I didn’t consider it). Sending emails alone and trying to coordinate sponsors across distances can really wear on you. If nothing more, it’s a lot of typing! So not difficult per se, but time consuming.  Not to mention my stellar timing of jumping into this project a week after EngineerBlogs.org started; I really set myself up for a bit of time sitting in front of a computer.

So that’s all from me for now. In case you’ve been lamenting my lax writing schedule, I’m signed up for at least one post a week over at Engineer Blogs, usually on Wednesdays. And I can continue to be heard weekly on The Amp Hour radio show. And if you really want to grab my attention, be sure to check out the 555 contest site and start your entries today!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2011/01/31/the-555-contest/
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Homeschooling

Posted by Chris_Gammell Oct 19, 2010

I have lots of thoughts about education, especially higher education. The theme that keeps popping up in my head though is that school isn’t too far removed from teaching yourself. Honestly, let’s look at the learning process:

  1. Encounter a “problem” that needs to be solved.
  2. Do background research and look at past examples of how it was solved.
  3. Apply your newly gained knowledge to the problem at hand.
  4. If a new problem arises that is not encompassed by the recently acquired wisdom, go back to step 2.
  5. Report on your findings to others.

Doesn’t this sound like work? Or studying on your own? Or doing a hobby project? How is this any different?

Since I’ve had this debate with friends before I can tell you what others say. They say that the classroom environment and being shown some of the methods before doing the problem is helpful. That having the theory explained directly helps the brain to acquire the necessary knowledge. That being able to step into the professor or teacher’s office and ask a question is a nice luxury to have. But does this always happen? I know I’ve had teachers I don’t understand (or very much disliked), notes that didn’t make any sense upon second reading and semesters where I’ve taught myself completely out of a textbook (and of course it happened to be the worst textbook of all my classes that semester).

Furthermore, there are resources today that allow individuals to continue learning on their own. Video resources like MIT Open Course Ware (OCW) can replace or augment self learning on particular topics. Message boards can provide a forum to interface with experts and to keep up on recent developments in your industry. The prices of equipment have nosedived in the past 10-15 years, allowing many more people to have a “lab section” in their house. And things like hackerspaces allow for social interactions and places to flesh out more advanced ideas.

So what’s really left? Motivation. When you’re paying $30,000 a year or are spending every Tuesday and Thursday in a classroom somewhere, you’re going to make the most of your time there. You’re going to do the homework and go get the help you need to figure out the subject matter because you aren’t allowed to put it off a month or a year. You’re going to be motivated by the piece of paper you receive at the end of your degree program saying that you completed all of the necessary requirements and did so while meeting or exceeding the expectations of your institution. Or you might even want to just prove you can do it. All of them really are valid reasons, they just don’t exist when you’re teaching yourself at home. External motivation is needed for many people (myself included) to pick up a book on a subject. In fact “motivation, momentary lapse of” is how this post came about. I was reading about active filters for a side project (where the motivation is showing off the side project and becoming “internet famous”) and I started thinking about how similar my current situation is to my former schooling. And all of the self-teaching and gained experiences are occurring without paying the $31,000 a year (yes, you read that right, tuition went up just since the last time I listed the number).

Do I hate higher education? No, I think there are some factors that make it invaluable to those that pursue it (and many more that benefit from the output). I may still try to get back to grad school myself some day. I love that there are institutions dedicated to research that might never get done otherwise. I’m glad that there are institutions that stress the rigor of the scientific method. I love that there are places where learning and advancing knowledge is the main purpose and task of those that attend. But all I’m saying is sometimes this happens in basements and bedrooms too.

Is learning at home without the structure of schools possible, especially in higher education? Does anyone ever teach themselves at home and why do you do it? What problems do you have with it? People currently enrolled in a University, do you find any fault with this thought?



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/10/19/homeschooling/
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Being an analog engineer, I’m around “more experienced” engineers on a daily basis. However, a group of younger engineers often find ourselves acting much older than we are, shouting things like “Get off my lawn!” and “Back in my day…” (really, we had a whole list).

Anyway, another common one that comes up is “They don’t make ‘em like they used to!”.  Do we as engineers know WHY they don’t make them that way anymore? Of course we do. The lower reliability and requirements for many more people to assemble the devices honestly doesn’t make sense these days. With lower priced labor the world over and low tolerance for waste and inefficient processes, I know I wouldn’t make the proverbial “them” that way anymore. It just doesn’t make sense.

But why am I mentioning this? In episode 12 of The Amp Hour, Dave Jones and I were discussing the Tektronix scope that I currently have disassembled and am attempting to piece back together in working order.  It’s the 485M, the military version of the very popular scope.  Right now I’m looking at getting the power supply back on its feet, the voltages were woefully low. More on that in later posts hopefully. For now, let’s concentrate on looking at the awesome design tactics and fabrications inside an old scope.

Note: I am a pretty bad photographer, please excuse any non-professional looking images.

A view of the quite complex button schema of old Tek scopes. Each button controls an individual switch, pot or selector switch. And yet it has many of the features of modern scopes match these exactly.

I LOVE modular design and this is a great example. If a technician (a Tek Tech?) found that a module wasn’t performing correctly this entire module could be switched out to check to see if it is indeed this module.

A closer view of the module. Of note is the resistor jumpered directly across the signal lines of the end connector. Perhaps this is a later fix for a customer issue. It’s also a good view of a mechanical connector that reaches all the way back from the front of the module. It’s a compound switch, pulling on it activates the arm in one direction and pushing on it does some other completely different action.

A close up view of the modular connector. I also like seeing the layout patterns done by hand before CAD programs were prevalent. Interesting to see where they flooded the ground planes.

A closer view of the analog components on one of the modules. Notice this was mainly resistors and a smattering of socketed op amps.

Another view of a mechanical arm reaching all the way to the back of the chassis. Likely a custom part as discussed on The Amp Hour.

This selector switch was the main voltage range switching. It had a compound action as well (inside was a fine tuning I believe) whereas the outside switch was the larger 1-2-5 multiple decade switching.

And finally, a view from the top. Note the >7 kV warning on the CRT tube. No touch!

So there it is, as Dave calls it, “nerd porn”. Isn’t it interesting to see how instruments were constructed not too long ago? It sure was more labor intensive and likely much more expensive than you can pick one up today on ebay. The benefit is that the hand-made and through-hole nature of this board makes it ripe for fixing AND without straining my fragile old eyes. Dangnabbit!



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/10/19/they-dont-make-em-like-they-used-to/
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As more circuits get pushed into SoC (Systems on a Chip), the software that designs them becomes more and more important. Well, it’s been important for a while now. Important enough to be a multi-billion dollar industry. Biiiiig money.

Harry Gries is an EDA consultant with over 20 years in the electronics industry in various roles. He now consults for different companies and also writes a blog about his experience called “Harry…The ASIC Guy”. I love hearing about the different pieces of the electronics food chain and Harry was nice enough to take some time to talk to me about his work. Let’s see what he had to say…

CG: Could you please explain your educational and professional background and how you got to where you are today?

Harry The ASIC Guy (HTAG): My education began when I was raised by wolves in the Northern Territory of Manitoba. That prepared me well for a stint at MIT and USC, after which I was abducted by aliens for a fortnight. I then spent 7 years as a digital designer at TRW, 14 years at Synopsys as an AE, consultant, consulting and program manager. Synopsys and I parted ways and I have been doing independent consulting for 3 years now. A good friend of mine tricked me into writing a blog, so now I’m stuck doing that as well.

CG: What are some of the large changes you see from industry to industry? How does company culture vary from sector to sector?

HTAG: Let’s start with EDA, which did not really exist when the aliens dropped me off in 1985. There were a few companies who did polygon pushing tools and workstations and circuit complexity was in the 1000s of gates. Most large semiconductor companies had their own fabs and their own tools. Gate arrays and standard cell design was just getting started, but you had to use the vendor’s tools. Now, of course, almost all design tools are made by “EDA companies”.

As far as the differences between industries and sectors, I’m not sure that is such a big difference culturally. The company culture is set from the top. If you have Aart DeGeus as your founder, then you have a very technology focused culture. If you have Gerry Hsu (former Avant! CEO), then you have a culture of “win at all costs”.

CG: How hard was it for you to jump from being a designer to being in EDA? What kinds of skills would someone looking to get into the industry need?

HTAG: The biggest difference is clearly the “soft skills” of how to deal with people, especially customers, and understanding the sales process. For me it was a pretty easy transition because I had some aptitude and I really had a passion for evangelizing the technology and helping others. If someone wanted to make that change, they would benefit from training and practice on communicating effectively, dealing with difficult people, presentation skills, influence skills, etc.

CG: With regards to the EDA industry, how much further ahead of the curve does the software end up being? For instance, is EDA working on software necessary to define the 13 nm node currently?

HTAG: As you know, the industry is never at a single point. Rather, there is a spectrum of design nodes being used with some small percentage at the most advanced nodes. Most EDA tools are being developed to address these new nodes, often in partnership with the semiconductor manufacturers developing the process node or the semiconductor designers planning to use them. The big EDA companies are really the only ones, for the most part, that have the resources to do this joint development. Whatever is the newest node being developed, some EDA company is probably involved.

CG: You have written about the nature of the industry and how there being few players affecting the nature of the system. What kinds of limitations do you see in the industry due to the economies of scale (TSMC dominance, for instance)?

HTAG: Consolidation is a fact in any industry and a good thing in EDA. Think of it as natural selection whereby the good ideas get gobbled up and live on with more funding (and the innovators are rewarded); the bad ideas die out. Most small EDA companies would want to be bought out as their “exit”. At the same time, there are some “lifestyle companies” also in EDA where the founders are happy just making a good living developing their tools and selling them without having to “sell out” to a larger company. For all these small companies, the cost of sales is a key factor because they cannot afford to have a larger world-wide sales direct force as the larger EDA companies have. That’s where technologies like Xuropa come into play, that enable these smaller companies to do more with less and be global without hiring a global sales force.

CG: What drives the requirements placed upon new technology in the EDA space? How are the products developed? Are there a lot of interactions with specific big name designers (i.e. Intel) or does it shade more to the manufacturers (TSMC)?

HTAG: In fact, a handful of key customers usually drive the requirements, especially for small companies. When I was at Synopsys, Intel’s needs was the driver for a number of years. Basically, the larger the customer, the greater the clout. Other customers factor in, but not as much. The most advanced physical design capabilities of the tools are often a collaboration between the EDA company and the semiconductor manufacturers (e.g. TSMC) and the also the designers (e.g. Qualcomm). Increasingly, EDA tools are focusing on the higher-levels and you are seeing partnerships with software companies, e.g. Cadence partnering with Wind River.

CG: A good chunk of chip design is written and validated in code. This contrasts with much more low level design decisions in the past. In your opinion how has this changed the industry and has this been a good or bad thing? Where will this go in the future, specifically for analog?

HTAG: Being a digital designer and not an analog designer, it’s all written in code. Obviously, the productivity is much higher with the higher level of abstraction and the tools are able to optimize the design much better and faster than someone by hand. So it’s all good.

For analog, I am not as tied in but I know that similar attempts are being tried; they use the idea that analog circuits can be optimized based on a set of constraints. I think this is a good thing as long as the design works.  Digital is easy in that regard, just meet timing and retain functionality and it’s pretty much correct. For analog there is so much more (jitter, noise margin, performance across process variation, CMRR, phase margin, etc, etc). I think it will be a while before analog designers trust optimization tools.

CG: It seems that the EDA industry has a strong showing of bloggers as compared to system level board engineers or even chip designers. What kinds of benefits have you seen in your own industry from having a network of bloggers and what about EDA promotes having so many people write about it?

HTAG: I think blogging is just one form of communication and since EDA people are already communicators (with their customers), they have felt more comfortable blogging than design engineers. Many of the EDA bloggers are in marketing types of positions at their companies or are independent consultants like me, so the objective is to start a conversation with customers that would be difficult to have in other ways. A result is that this builds credibility for themselves that then accrues to their company. I think there has also been a ton of sharing and learning due to these blogs and that has benefited the entire industry. On a personal level, I know so many more people due to the blog and that network is of great value.

CG: How has your career changed since moving back out of the EDA space and into consulting? What kind of work have you been doing lately?  How has your experience helped you in consulting?

HTAG: It is interesting to have been on the EDA side and then move back into the design side. Whenever I communicate with an EDA company, whether a presentation or a tool evaluation or any conversation, I can easily put myself in their shoes and know where they are coming from. On the one hand, I can spot clearly manipulative practices such as spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about a competitor and I can read between the lines to gain insights that others would miss. On the other hand, I also understand the legitimate reasons that EDA companies make certain decisions, such as limiting the length of tool evaluations, qualifying an opportunity, etc.

Most recently I’ve been working on some new technology development at a new process node. It’s been interesting because I’ve been able to dig deeper into how digital libraries are developed, characterized, and tested and I’ve also learned a lot more about the mixed-signal and analog world and also the semiconductor process.

Many thanks to Harry for taking the time to answer some questions about his industry and how he views the electronics world. If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments or pop over to Harry’s main site and leave a comment there.



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/05/25/a-talk-with-an-eda-consultant/
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Clueless About Income

Posted by Chris_Gammell May 13, 2010

I’ve been going over my personal finances lately. I’ve decided that I would like to increase my wealth (shocker, I’m sure). I’ve always been a bit of a cheapskate and I’ve cut back more thanks to the recession. And so I need to go in the other direction. And why not? Making more is just as effective as spending less on the road to wealth.

So how do I make money?

I’ve never really thought about that before. I guess there are the conventional routes:

  1. Ask for more money at my current job — We’re in a recession, remember? Try again.
  2. Get a new job — I could, but I like my current job and there are a lot of hidden costs with changing jobs. My move from Austin was pricey, and that was with help from my current employer. Not to mention I would have to win out over the many other qualified people out there who are currently employed. No thanks.
  3. Win the lottery — Ah yes, the illogical man’s backup plan. This wasn’t serious, I’m just trying to illustrate how little I’ve thought of making more money for myself in the past.

Wasn’t that a fun exercise? I’m not saying that’s all there is, I’m saying that’s all that came to mind before I really started thinking about it. So what other options are there?

Well, I’m sure at least one or two of you have noticed that I run a website. I could pretend that I could make money on here, selling links and putting up ads for people, but I just don’t think it will work; plus I usually hate how that stuff looks on websites. Aside from the fact that you really can’t make money with a blog, I’m not even sure I would want to. If you focus all your efforts on your one endeavor (such as writing), you lose the spice that makes your perspective so unique. Why else would an online comic artist go back to school for physics? (duh, to get good jokes about nerds!) I’d prefer to write AND continue working with analog electronics every day to be able to use skills I learn from one in the other.

Then there’s consulting. Ah, the money that can be made from consulting, so they say (you know…”they”). The thing is, I really don’t have that much experience yet nor do I have the contacts necessary (the most important part, so I hear). And this whole model is still dependent on others giving you a salary of sorts (albeit with more independence). While this is a possibility in the future, I just don’t see this as a possibility yet. (FYI: I also group “freelancing” in with this category. Freelancing is just consulting for a much lower price in my opinion).

Well why not make something? Selling a product has probably never been easier. The supply chain is set up, you can get prototypes up quickly and cheaply and there is a whole region of the world just waiting for you to send ideas their way that they can manufacture. The problem is, I said I want to make money, not spend it. And spend you will if you ever try to launch a product in any capacity. There’s always the homemade versions of electronics, such as kit manufactures and hobbyist board houses, but they’ve got those models down pat and I don’t have a lot of interest. So as of now, I’m counting the “product” idea out as well.

I wrote this post because I wanted to point out that there may be lots of ways to make money, but I’m stuck in a mode where I am dependent on others to give me a salary. That’s a dangerous position and one that will limit your earning potential over the life of your career. I’ve stated that one of my long term goals is to start my own company, but I’m thinking that I should perhaps start in sooner than later. That way I can get the mistakes out of the way early and decide if it’s a hobby or an actual money making endeavor. The main thing holding me back is that I have zero clue as to what I would do.

What about you? Have you broken out of the conventional model of going to work every day and earning a steady paycheck? I’m on the beginning steps of a long journey that could take many directions and having one or two people wave at me from down the path might make me feel a little better about thinking about finally leaving home.



Originally posted by Chris Gammell at http://chrisgammell.com/2010/05/13/clueless-about-income/